Monday, 3 November 2008

Lower the Tone – Three Thirds make a...

My “tone fetish” has reached all new lows. Anyone who does not share my perversion for the finer points of Mandarin should look away now.

I posted the following on theBeijinger:
How do you pronounce three third tones in a row? For example, for the name of Lu Xun's antihero, Kǒng Yǐjǐ - 孔乙己

Mandarin learners know that when two third tones are together, the first becomes a second tone, and that if a third tone precedes a second tone, the tone is cut in half, only the first half being pronounced. Considering these two axioms here are three potential solutions:
  1. Kong(half third) Yi(second)ji(third) - this seems like quite a mouthful.
  2. Kong(second)Yi(third)ji(third) - in which case one rule is not being observed.
  3. Two second tones followed by a whole third.
I even emailed John at Sinosplice with this query. As one of the voices behind Chinesepod, I consider him an expert. Neither him, nor the 57 readers of my forum post, replied. As well as proving that I have too much time on my hands, this lack of response demonstrates that mine is either a very stupid or a very difficult question. Either I have uncovered a contradiction inherent within the Chinese language, or, more likely: I have missed something.

If anyone, especially Chinese readers (write in Chinese or English) could shed some light on the subject, The Peking Order would be grateful for a comment.


Sam P said...

I would have though the rules applied only to the original tone, not a tone that has been changed because of a different rule. That rules out the first of your three examples. On gut feeling I would go for example number three, which would be applying the "two third tones in a row" rule, in succesion, starting from the first two characters, and then moving on to the last to characters, which is the order it would be read in.

Also, the fact that Kong Yiji is a name may have some bearing on the situation. Do one still apply the rule to names, where the meaning of the characters you are pronouncing is more easily lost than in normal speech where context is a big help?

And finally, is there an actual word in Chinese that has three third tones in a row? Maybe the rule was discovered from the already existant format of the language (seeking truth from facts!), rather than vice versa. This would mean that your theoretical problem has never arisen.

I find it interesting anyway mate, I will ask Wu Daming today after he has taught me about the pros and cons of letters of credit vs collection.

Yang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yang said...

the first one, half third, second, then a whole third. definitely, definitely this time. ;)

Jez Webb said...

Sam: Perhaps there are more rules at play than we first think, and the order they are executed is the crucial factor. Perhaps, like you said, we first apply the “two third tone” rule in succession, then apply your “rule for rules”: "rules applied only to the original tone, not a tone that has been changed because of a different rule". This would change the first tone back to third which would then demand the second rule I mentioned to be invoked - “if a third tone precedes a second tone, the tone is cut in half, only the first half being pronounced” – that would change it to a half tone. What do you think?

Yang: Is this a definite rule for all three third tone in a row words? Perhaps you could answer Sam’s question: Does it matter that it is a name of a person?

Sam P said...

Have been talking with my language partner about this, and she says if she says it naturally it is 3rd,2nd,3rd. I asked if this was to do with the fact that it was a name, meaning the 姓 should be pronounced as a single character, and then the 名 pronounced as a combination, which would mean it has to follow the rule, thus turning the 乙 to a 2nd tone and she agreed, saying that there should be a slight pause after the 姓 before you say the 名.

Jez Webb said...

Wikipedia says this on the subject:

If the first word is two syllables, and the second word is one syllable, the first two syllables become 2nd tones, and the last syllable stays 3rd tone:
ex: 保管好 (bǎoguǎn hǎo)

If the first word is one syllable, and the second word is two syllables, the first syllable becomes half-3rd tone (˨˩), the second syllable becomes 2nd tone, and the last syllable stays 3rd tone:
ex: 老保管 (lǎo bǎoguǎn)

孔乙己, therefore, would belong to the second, in which case Sam's language partner and Yang agree to an extent but are divided as to what happens with the first third tone.

I would have thought that there is no pause and that it becomes a half-third tone, it sounds silly otherwise. This would also agree with wikipedia. That would indicate that words and their tones do not work in isolation of other words, which then raises another point: How would we say, for example, that “Kong Yiji keeps dogs -孔乙己养狗”?

(Do you think that my logic in the last comment is correct in explaining what is going on behind the scenes?)

Anonymous said...

I would suggest to have a look at some of Canipari works, which I think have been translated in English as well....He's one of the most important linguistic researchers in the world. Giulia (anonymous only because I couldn't understand how the identity thing works!)